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Dev Biol. 1998 May 1;197(1):12-24.

Ectopic expression of Msx-2 in posterior limb bud mesoderm impairs limb morphogenesis while inducing BMP-4 expression, inhibiting cell proliferation, and promoting apoptosis.

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Department of Anatomy, School of Medicine, University of Connecticut Health Center, Farmington, Connecticut 06030, USA.


During early stages of chick limb development, the homeobox-containing gene Msx-2 is expressed in the mesoderm at the anterior margin of the limb bud and in a discrete group of mesodermal cells at the midproximal posterior margin. These domains of Msx-2 expression roughly demarcate the anterior and posterior boundaries of the progress zone, the highly proliferating posterior mesodermal cells underneath the apical ectodermal ridge (AER) that give rise to the skeletal elements of the limb and associated structures. Later in development as the AER loses its activity, Msx-2 expression expands into the distal mesoderm and subsequently into the interdigital mesenchyme which demarcates the developing digits. The domains of Msx-2 expression exhibit considerably less proliferation than the cells of the progress zone and also encompass several regions of programmed cell death including the anterior and posterior necrotic zones and interdigital mesenchyme. We have thus suggested that Msx-2 may be in a regulatory network that delimits the progress zone by suppressing the morphogenesis of the regions of the limb mesoderm in which it is highly expressed. In the present study we show that ectopic expression of Msx-2 via a retroviral expression vector in the posterior mesoderm of the progress zone from the time of initial formation of the limb bud severely impairs limb morphogenesis. Msx-2-infected limbs are typically very narrow along the anteroposterior axis, are occasionally truncated, and exhibit alterations in the pattern of formation of skeletal elements, indicating that as a consequence of ectopic Msx-2 expression the morphogenesis of large portions of the posterior mesoderm has been suppressed. We further show that Msx-2 impairs limb morphogenesis by reducing cell proliferation and promoting apoptosis in the regions of the posterior mesoderm in which it is ectopically expressed. The domains of ectopic Msx-2 expression in the posterior mesoderm also exhibit ectopic expression of BMP-4, a secreted signaling molecule that is coexpressed with Msx-2 during normal limb development in the anterior limb mesoderm, the posterior necrotic zone, and interdigital mesenchyme. This indicates that Msx-2 regulates BMP-4 expression and that the suppressive effects of Msx-2 on limb morphogenesis might be mediated in part by BMP-4. These studies indicate that during normal limb development Msx-2 is a key component of a regulatory network that delimits the boundaries of the progress zone by suppressing the morphogenesis of the regions of the limb mesoderm in which it is highly expressed, thus restricting the outgrowth and formation of skeletal elements and associated structures to the progress zone. We also report that rather large numbers of apoptotic cells as well as proliferating cells are present throughout the AER during all stages of normal limb development we have examined, indicating that many of the cells of the AER are continuously undergoing programmed cell death at the same time that new AER cells are being generated by cell proliferation. Thus, a balance between cell proliferation and programmed cell death may play a very important role in maintaining the activity of the AER.

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